Russell Dunn and Barbara Delaney are as energetic and bubbly as the waterfalls they hike to and that Dunn has written guide books about.
Both are in their 60s and overflow with stories about the hundreds of waterfalls they have seen, the history hikes they lead and their plans to publish more books of — as yet for them — unexplored terrain.
For the couple, who split their time between a cottage on the Great Sacandaga Lake and a home in Albany, it began simply with Dunn collecting old Victorian-era postcards of local interest, including waterfall postcards. Typically, the card shows the waterfall and includes information on the place the image was taken.
Strictly for the fun of it, the couple would try to locate the scene depicted on the card.
They’ve been making these quests for years, and what began as an enjoyable way to spend time on a weekend has developed into six books on history hikes and waterfalls with more books on similar subjects planned.
Dunn explained how they go about it. He said that as they got close to their destination, they would ask locals if they recognized the place on the postcard. Sometimes, people would look at the old postcard and know every detail about a waterfall including legends and lore. Other times, locals would say they never saw it “even if it was right behind them,” he said.
old postcard images
“It was totally hit or miss. Sometimes you asked the right person; the person who could tell you everything you wanted to know,” he said. Dunn includes old postcard pictures of the waterfalls as illustrations in his books.
What makes waterfalls so popular? Dunn thinks the sound of water cascading over rocks has much to do with its appeal. Like the wind howling through hemlocks or waves pounding on the shore, “waterfalls are the voice of natural, powerful and majestic, beckoning and mesmerizing,” he writes in “Hudson Valley Waterfall Guide,” one of four waterfall guides published to date.
Another part of the attraction, he said, is that they never look the same way twice; they offer an ever-changing show over the seasons. “I think people today have the same reaction to waterfalls as the Victorians did. We’re fascinated by the sublime and the awesome, mesmerized by these entities of rock and water.”
The best time to see waterfalls at their prime is “mud season,” Dunn said, when the winter’s snows are melting and the run-off is greatest. “Waterfalls are at their mightiest and most ferocious then,” he said.
But waterfalls have appeal almost any time. They are universally loved, Dunn said. Delaney added that waterfalls are like fire. “You can look at it forever,” she said. And each time you visit, the waterfall is different. “Visit after visit, they are never quite the same. You know you can go back and that the next time, it will be different,” Dunn said.
A retired medical social worker, Dunn has a natural curiosity about the world around him. Combine this with an innate sense of adventure, and an engaging personality and it is easy to understand why strangers take him out hiking, all the while sharing their stories of local history and lore.
“People like to share what they know,” he said.
Delaney was a research assistant with the New York state Department of Health before retiring. She co-authored with Dunn the book “Trails with Tales,” which describes 30 hikes through history-rich areas of eastern New York and western Massachusetts. She has been the cartographer for the couple’s other books, and together the couple are working on a new “Trails with Tales” book about history hikes in the Adirondack Mountains.
proofed by local experts
The two take the work very seriously and will send out drafts of chapters to be proofed by local experts. Dunn and Delaney read everything they can about the place and acknowledge “all the writers, artists and photographers who went there before us. We try to give the books a lot of depth.” Dunn said. The Hudson Valley Waterfall Guide, for example, has more than 70 pages devoted to footnotes, bibliography and index.
Dunn and Delaney are often called upon by community groups to lead hikes to destinations that are rich in cultural as well as natural history. Waterfalls are often steeped in history since they provide energy for industry as well as inspiration for poets and painters. “One of the things that appeals to me in working on the books is the sense of adventure in searching for these natural treasures,” said Dunn.
“It’s been a real partnership for us,” Dunn said noting that since embarking on their writing career, the couple have become licensed hiking guides in New York state.
As such, they lead others on hikes to some of the places they enjoy. For example, one hike takes participants to the places painted by Hudson River school artists in the 1800s. Some of the painted views are readily identifiable, but in others the artists took license with brush and canvas and, in at least one case, a single painting combines features from several views.
The painting “Kindred Spirits” by Asher Brown Durand shows American artist Thomas Cole and American poet William Cullen Bryant standing on a ledge overlooking the wilderness of the Catskill Mountains. Dunn said he believes that the overlook is of Fawn’s Leap with at least two other views melded together.
The idea for hikes that explored the rich history of the Adirondack region began when Dunn and Delaney were hiking in an area near Northville and spotted odd pieces of machinery in the brush. “We decided to drive through Northville and stop at the library to see if anything was written up about the area we hiked.” They wanted to uncover the mystery of what they had seen.
What they found through research was that there was once a town of 250 people, hotels, boarding houses and a tannery in the area that has now been reclaimed by the woods. “We kept asking questions and gathering interesting bits of history. We are not historians, just hikers who like history,” Dunn said.
fourth guide published
Dunn has researched and visited hundreds of New York waterfalls in the course of writing his series of guidebooks. Black Dome Press recently published the fourth, “Mohawk Region Waterfall Guide.” The previous guides cover the Adirondack, Catskill and Hudson Valley regions. Dunn has visited more than 320 waterfalls described in the books, returning to some of them several times to make certain his trail descriptions are clear and accurate.
“I really believe that the best is yet to come,” Dunn said of the future. “If you had told me 15 years ago that I would be writing books and have speaking engagements, I wouldn’t have believed it. I couldn’t have envisioned this,” he said.
The couple are working on several other books in addition to the Adirondack history hikes guide book. They have started to compile data and stereographic images of the artwork at the Empire Plaza. And Dunn is working on a Berkshires waterfalls book while Delaney has turned some of her attention to a work of fiction that combines history and romance.
Inside the front door of their Albany home, a walking stick leans against the wall ready for the couple’s next adventure.